By Marian Kaufman
This year the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans celebrates its 25th anniversary. We interviewed alumnus Jericho Brown. After graduating from the program, Jericho went on to receive his Ph.D in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. His poems have appeared in the The New Republic, The New Yorker and The Best American Poetry. His first book, Please, won the American Book Award, and his second book, The New Testament, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. This past spring, he was awarded a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship. He currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia where he is an Associate Professor of English and creative writing at Emory University.
We spoke to Jericho about the life of a poem from conception to revision, poetry and the queer community, and the goal of writing a book that will knock him on his ass.
How does a poem first come to you?
I usually get (or overhear) some series of sounds I find musically attractive. I try to transliterate those sounds into lines and follow them with lines that riff off of the sounds of those lines. I don’t concern myself with sense, at first. I really just focus on what things sound like then go back and ask the text created from that process a series of questions. Who are you? What is your personality? How do you feel? Who is your speaker? What is your tone of voice? Why are you talking now? What has led to this moment for you? Doing this leads to pushing sounds toward sense and writing what becomes a first draft.
How was the experience of writing your second book compared to your first?
It was scary at first because no poems were coming in the way that they had come to me much more automatically in the past. And I wasn’t sure what I was trying to figure out about poetry because I didn’t have poems to help point me toward the new questions I’d be asking about syntax and line and metaphor and such. Much of the book ended up being written as a response to not doing certain things I had done in the first book. For instance, I made a list of words that ran throughout Please and vowed to never use them again. I also made a decision about finding ways to end poems that were much more subtle than the endings in Please. All this “law of not” became the basis by which the second book was written.
You have a beautiful ghazal, “Hustle,” in The New Testament. How do formal elements and fixed forms influence the poems you’re currently writing? Has your writing relationship with traditional form changed over time?
I don’t know that any poet can measure relationship to form. I believe in it, but then again, a lot of people who believe in Jesus Christ commit murder while others don’t go to church. I am sure, though, that exact rhyme is playing a larger part in my current work. And that’s probably because I’ve been paying closer attention to Gwendolyn Brooks’ use of hard rhymes. The major change over time is that I’m not as prejudiced against the freest of free verse poems as I used to be. Poetry must be varied and made new, even when that newness goes against my personal poetics.
Congratulations on winning a Guggenheim Award. Could you tell us what this means to you personally and what specific goals you hope to accomplish during your fellowship?
I wish I could be more specific here. My goal is to write a book that knocks me off my ass and makes me rethink what a poem is and what it can do. But that would have been my goal if I never won anything in the world. Of course, validation from the outside world helps keep the lights on, and it gives me some indication that I am living the dream I always had of becoming a poet whose work is a part of the conversation, whose work spurs conversation.
You graduated from the Creative Writing Workshop here at the University of New Orleans, which is where Bayou is published. How would you describe the evolution of your work since then, either thematically or in terms of form?
Hmm…Well the poems are probably better and more formally interesting because I’ve read and lived more. I am more willing to write about race and blackness and sexuality as if these are givens…rather than as if I’m exposing or exposed.
How would you explain the importance of poetry to the queer community?
The queer life suggests that one lives in a way that accepts—even seeks out—the complexity of being in individual self. It means to walk around and know you may be misunderstood and to keep walking with all of your contradictions coming together to make you whole. I imagine the queer community likes poems because what we see in a poem is what we are.
Can you speak a little about your writing and revision process?
I make a draft and put it away for about 30 days. Then I look at it again to see it with fresh eyes. Then I send it to friends who often tell me to start over and sometimes tell me I may be on to something.
What are the most important non-literary forces that influence your writing?
I like to hear singing and to watch live performances and to pay attention to the ways voices change over the years. I like thinking about how the athleticism necessary for getting through a song might be similar to the craft one needs to write a poem. I like to imagine what is practiced and what is passion when I go to a concert or see a show. And I like trying to figure out how to emulate that in the work of my poems.
Who are the emerging poets you are particularly intrigued by?
Anais Duplain, Donika Kelly, and Phillip B. Williams are doing wonderful work everyone should see.